Nadine Gordimer, South African Novelist and Nobel Laureate, Dies at 90
FILE - This is a Sunday, Nov. 26, 2006 file photo of Nobel Prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer, of South Africa, as she listens to a question during a news conference on the Guadalajara International Book Fair at Guadalajara's Expo in Mexico. Gordimer died in her sleep in Johannesburg, Sunday July 13, 2014, aged 90. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias, File)
Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer and Nobel laureate for literature whose intense, intimate prose helped expose apartheid to a global readership and who continued to illuminate the brutality and beauty of her country long after the demise of the racist government, died Sunday at her home in Johannesburg. She was 90.
Her family announced the death but did not disclose the cause.
Gordimer was an early and active member of the African National Congress, but she did not craft political manifestos. Her role as an author, she said, was simply to “write in my own way as honestly as I can and go as deeply as I can into the life around me.”
Her characters with lofty ideals were often personally flawed; the racists and apolitical businessmen had the same depth and complexity as the freedom fighters.
From her 1958 novel, A World of Strangers, which details the futile attempts of a young English businessman to maintain ties among whites and blacks in South Africa, to the 2012 No Time Like the Present, which follows an interracial couple struggling to navigate their troubled post-apartheid society, Gordimer wrote unsparingly of race, identity and place, and of how repressive political systems etched themselves onto the lives and relationships of individuals.
“She makes visible the extremely complicated and utterly inhuman living conditions in the world of racial segregation,” Sture Allen, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said while awarding Gordimer the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991. “In this way, artistry and morality fuse.”
Gordimer noted that “politics is character” in South Africa, said Stephen Clingman, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an authority on the novelist’s work. “She knew that if you wanted to understand any character, black or white, you needed to understand the way politics entered into the very individual.”
The apartheid government, which imposed censorship laws capriciously, banned four of her novels — A World of Strangers, The Late Bourgeois World, Burger’s Daughter and July’s People — with various claims of subversiveness.
Gordimer was co-founder of the majority-black Congress of South African Writers and counted as her closest friends such intellectuals as Edward Said and Susan Sontag. Although a loyal friend and mentor to those whom she deemed worthy of her attention, she was known for her impatience with those she found pedantic.
She scoffed at the cautious sensibilities of “liberal whites,” preferring to call herself a “radical,” and expressed frustration at the hand-wringing attention to the plight of whites in post-apartheid South Africa.
Standing 5 feet 1 inch tall, Gordimer had what one observer described as “the carefully cultivated fierceness of the fragile.” Despite her tiny stature, she could still turn a piercing, intimidating eye on those who suggested her works were “about” some real life person or event.
Nadine Gordimer was born Nov. 20, 1923, outside of Johannesburg in the mining town of Springs, a place of “burned veld round mine-dumps and coal-mine slag hills,” she said.
Her parents were Jewish immigrants — her mother from England, her father from Lithuania — but the family was secular and, Gordimer would say, excruciatingly middle class.
Captivated by the idea of being a writer, Gordimer moved to Johannesburg. She attended university there for about a year but got more of an education delving into the electric, interracial arts scene of the famous Sophiatown township.
Gordimer published her first short-story collection, Face to Face, in 1949, and she soon began contributing fiction to the New Yorker.
Her first novel, The Lying Days, was published in 1953 and follows Helen Shaw, the daughter of white, middle-class parents who live in a gold-mining town, as she begins to become aware of the black life around her.
“I think the first novel is usually some kind of revenge against your background,” she said at the time. of her Nobel win. “And, you know, you’ve got to get it off your chest.”
Her first marriage, to Gerald Gavronsky, ended in divorce. In 1954, she wed Reinhold Cassirer, an art dealer who had been a refugee from Nazi Germany and was a nephew of the philosopher Ernst Cassirer.
Reinhold Cassirer died in 2001. Survivors include a daughter from her first marriage, Oriane; and son from her second marriage, Hugo.
Gordimer was a prolific, disciplined writer. While raising her family, she would shut herself in her office with her typewriter. Nobody was to disturb her unless, she said, to inform her that the house was burning down.
From that home office, Gordimer wrote more than a dozen novels, hundreds of short stories and essays, and collaborated on screenplays and edited collections of other works. She won a slew of literary awards.
As her country stumbled into the post-apartheid 2000s, she was asked whether democracy would “take the zip out of South African fiction.” She responded, “On the contrary. We’ve got plenty of problems.”
Those critics who suggested hers had been a privileged existence - that she was able to use as a muse the toils of her country from her leafy, white neighborhood without ever facing consequences - simply did not understand her job, she would say.
“The tension between standing apart and being fully involved,” she wrote in one of her introductions, “that is what makes a writer.”
Hanes is a freelance writer who covered South Africa for the Baltimore Sun.